A tough legislative session for the UT System and Chancellor McRaven


The UT System is taking heat for its Houston land purchase and its new headquarters building in Austin.

Chancellor Bill McRaven concedes that his relationships with lawmakers might need some work.

One state lawmaker says the University of Texas System Board of Regents is building “a monument” to itself in the form of a $130 million headquarters in downtown Austin.

Another lawmaker wants to transfer 141 acres of UT System-owned land in West Austin to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department without compensating the university.

Still others are criticizing the system’s unexpected $215 million acquisition of 307 acres in Houston for a new campus.

It’s been a bumpy legislative session thus far for the UT System, the administrative arm overseeing 14 academic and health campuses. The ire has mostly been directed at the system’s chief executive, Chancellor Bill McRaven, 61, a retired four-star admiral and Navy SEAL who planned the 2011 raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed.

McRaven’s 37-year military career, culminating in a stint as commander of all U.S. Special Operations forces, is held in high regard by members of the state Legislature in military-friendly Texas. But the chancellor’s approach to his current job, which pays $1.9 million a year, hasn’t won him the same admiration under the pink granite dome.

Critics, supporters and McRaven himself agree that his biggest mistake was his failure to consult lawmakers before acquiring the tract in Houston. In addition, he hasn’t spent as much time cultivating relationships with legislators as, say, UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves, who has visited many of them in their home districts. Moreover, McRaven didn’t come into the job in January 2015 with a deep understanding of the people and forces at work in the Capitol, in contrast with the chancellors of the Texas Tech, Texas State and Texas A&M university systems, all of whom have held state elective office.

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“I like to think my relationship with lawmakers is generally pretty good,” McRaven said in an interview, noting that he recently played football with some House members and has held receptions for lawmakers at Bauer House, the chancellor’s official residence. “If there are any issues, I accept full responsibility. I’m going to do everything I can to rebuild those relationships.

“The fact is I have a very large enterprise to run — 14 institutions that require a CEO’s steady hand throughout the year. I admit I am spending more time with my presidents to make sure I am supporting them so they can be successful and their institutions can be successful.”

Not quite past turmoil 

A low point for McRaven came at a state Senate Finance Committee hearing last month when lawmakers sharply criticized him for blindsiding them on the 2015 Houston land purchase, for not having a clear plan for the property and for spending money on a new campus when existing campuses have a backlog of construction and renovation needs. McRaven apologized, as he has previously, for not alerting lawmakers in advance. But he defended his effort “to have a bit of a vision” as chancellor, even if that means taking some risks on what he called a “generational effort.”

UT System board Chairman Paul Foster has found himself on the hot seat as well, fielding questions from lawmakers about the Houston acquisition, the lack of blacks on the governor-appointed board, and a marketing and branding initiative that prompted one senator’s wisecrack that the system “has more money than they know what to do with.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, a friend of the UT enterprise whose district includes the Austin flagship and who worked with university officials to establish the Dell Medical School, said system officials have stumbled when it comes to communicating with lawmakers.

“There’s no question that there needs to be more and better communication,” Watson said. “Relationships matter in this building, and information is powerful.”

Communication is all the more important, he said, because the system is just now emerging from several years of tumult and dysfunction on its governing board, culminating with one regent’s unsuccessful lawsuit seeking confidential student records from an investigation into favoritism in admissions at UT-Austin.

That regent, Wallace L. Hall Jr., and two like-minded regents are no longer on the board, but “the stink of that dysfunction hasn’t left the building,” Watson said, noting that legislative leaders established a special House-Senate panel at one point to examine higher education governance, as well as a House panel to investigate Hall.

Jabs and secret plans

The UT System’s roughing-up at the Capitol has come on matters large and relatively small.

The Senate’s proposed budget for the next two years would reduce appropriations for the system administration and the 14 campuses by $529 million, or 16 percent. UT-Austin’s share of the cut would be $106 million — 19 percent of its current two-year appropriation. Most of the cuts would come from eliminating so-called special item funding for such projects as the McDonald Observatory in West Texas.

It’s not much consolation for UT System officials, but all of the other public universities in the state would also lose special item funding. Senate officials say some of that funding will be restored.

Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo who chairs the Higher Education Committee, has emerged as one of the UT System’s most forceful critics. During last month’s Finance Committee hearing, he questioned why officials are spending $1.5 million to develop a branding initiative touting the system and its campuses, as the American-Statesman reported in October.

“It looks to me like an entity has more money than they know what to do with,” Seliger said, adding: “The chancellor does not need any burnishing to his image.”

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Foster, the UT board chairman, said the initiative could enhance the campuses’ collective brand as one of the great university systems in the nation.

During a confirmation hearing for three UT regents, Seliger took issue simultaneously with the 19-story system headquarters rising on West Seventh Street and the Houston land deal.

“It appears that the Board of Regents is building a monument to the Board of Regents in downtown Austin and building we don’t know what — it’s apparently the Manhattan Project of higher education because nobody knows what it is — in Houston,” he said.

New HQ

In a news release and a follow-up email to the Statesman, the UT System made its case for consolidating from six buildings to a single new headquarters on its downtown tract, having sold one building to the Texas State University System and leasing an entire block to a developer.

All told, the net savings from the new building is $45 million, said Scott Kelley, the system’s executive vice chancellor for business affairs. What’s more, he said, Trammell Crow Co.’s lease for condominiums, retail shops, offices and perhaps a hotel will generate upwards of $6 million a year in property tax revenue for local governments on a parcel that has been tax-free for more than 100 years.

As for the land acquired in Houston, where the UT System already has the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Health Science Center, McRaven said a full-fledged university isn’t in the cards. Rather, he sees it as a venue for the system’s other campuses to have a presence in the state’s largest city for educational opportunities as well as research partnerships with the energy, health care and finance sectors.

A task force of civic and other leaders is working on recommendations for developing the campus, but any concrete action would need approval and spending authorization from the nine-member Board of Regents, two of whose newest members testified at their confirmation hearing last month that they oppose a new campus in Houston. The University of Houston views the initiative as encroaching on its aspirations to become one of the nation’s leading research universities, and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, agrees.

“I believe your style is it’s your way or the highway,” Whitmire told McRaven during a Senate hearing. “In all due respect, I don’t think you give a damn what the Legislature thinks.”

That marked the start of an unusually testy exchange:

McRaven: “As far as my respect and admiration for this body and elected officials around this country, that is absolutely wrong. I spent 37 years in the military, and I’m not going to tout the uniform, but I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I raised my right hand to do that, and I think I did that pretty well for 37 years.”

Whitmire: “That’s not the issue this morning.”

McRaven: “Sir, you said I do not respect this body.”

Whitmire: “That’s my opinion.”

McRaven: “I recognize that’s your opinion, and I can tell you that’s not true.”

Meanwhile, a bill to preserve Lions Municipal Golf Course on system-owned land along Lake Austin Boulevard in West Austin landed in the legislative hopper this month like a quick chip shot.

Senate Bill 822, authored by Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, would transfer ownership to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department without any compensation to the system for the loss of land donated by a regent in 1910. The measure was filed less than a month after Fenves, in an abrupt policy reversal no doubt approved by McRaven and key regents, offered to extend the lease of the course to the city of Austin beyond May 2019 — provided the city is willing to pony up lease payments closer to the land’s market value, estimated at $5.5 million a year in 2011.

McRaven and his staff, as well as Fenves and his staff, no doubt will argue privately to lawmakers that passage of Estes’ bill would leave would-be donors wary that gifts of land to a state university or agency might be redirected by the Legislature. In any event, McRaven said he welcomes and respects input from lawmakers on all manner of topics involving the system.

“I like people that are passionate about their issues,” he said. “I’m always happy to engage in discussion and conversation with them.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the UT System’s revised acreage and price for the Houston land.

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